Dinosaurs is a perennial favorite class topic for preschool and elementary age kids. (Most of these activities are also great for a dinosaur themed birthday party!)
This post is a collection of dinosaur themed activities that we have done over the years in my STEM enrichment class for 3 – 7 year olds. It includes: imaginary play, an engineering activity, large motor, small motor and sensory bin activities inspired by dinosaur digs, science activities, dinosaur art projects, outdoor activities. I also include Group Time ideas, recommended books, and videos.
Most of our STEM topics don’t lend themselves to dress-up, so this was a chance to bring that in: we had dinosaur tails we made (like these), dino hood and gloves, and masks, plus roaring dinosaur hobby horses from the dollar store.
We also read the book I Am a Tyrannosaurus by Hines (Here’s a YouTube read-aloud), and encouraged the children to act out different dinosaurs as the book describes. And we set out a collection of toy dinosaurs, toy trees, and wooden blocks for kids to build scenes with.
We use cardboard, straws and string to build a cardboard dinosaur finger, and talk about how modern film-makers might use animatronics to re-create these extinct creatures. These are definitely a parent-child project. A preschool age child couldn’t do one on their own.
Our vocabulary word for this class is excavate – to dig things up! Here are just a few ideas for paleontology play:
Take a BIG cardboard box (or plastic tub or kiddie pool). Fill it with shredded paper (or pompoms, or ball pit balls, or laundry or whatever.) Toss in a bunch of large plastic dinosaurs. Bury them. Kids dig them up. (Encourage them to keep all the filler material in the tub as much as possible!) When they’ve found them all, they can re-bury and repeat to their hearts’ content. This is a great large motor activity, especially popular with 3 and 4 year olds.
Freeze a large container of water with plastic dinos in it, then put the ice out on a tray with salt, water and pipettes and other tools for kids to help them excavate the dinos. This is similar to an ice excavation we do in our states of matter session. Tip: if you have a few days till you need it, freeze in layers… put in a little water and a dino and freeze. Then add more water and a dino, freeze that layer, and so on.
You can make frozen “dinosaur eggs” by putting a small plastic dinosaur inside a balloon, then filling the balloon with water and freezing it. Once it’s frozen, cut off the balloon. Put out the ice eggs with salt to sprinkle and water to squirt on / pour on. Learn more, and see pictures at Teaching Mama and Parenting Chaos.
Fill a sensory table (or shallow plastic tub) with sand (or other sensory material, such as rice, beans, popcorn kernels, oatmeal, etc.) Bury small dinosaurs. Add shovels or spoons.
Digging Up Bones
Instead of whole dinosaurs, you could bury “bones” that the child could dig up and then assemble a skeleton with. You could use bone-shaped dog treats, or search online for “Make dinosaur bones” for tips on how to make them using a wide variety of materials (e.g. model magic, plaster, chicken bones.) Here’s a salt dough option.
You could get a dinosaur puzzle. Bury the pieces in a sensory material. They dig out pieces and assemble it WITHOUT a picture to look at of what it will look like when it’s done. This is like a paleontologist digging up bones and trying to piece them together.
Or just use a variety of pasta shapes, or cut bones out from cardboard in your recycling bin. You could then use these pasta bones for a pasta skeleton (see below).
You can make play-dough or use an air dry clay like Model Magic for making impressions. You can press noodles, or shells, or leaves, or pine needles, or fossils into it to make an impression. Interestingly, we had planned this as a take home project, and kids ended up turning it into a process play activity instead. They would roll a ball of clay, press in an object, admire it for a moment, then roll the clay back into a ball, and do it again.
Building a Dino Skeleton
Give them a large box of toilet paper and paper towel rolls, some cardboard boxes to cut up and a poster with a few sample ideas. See what they build. Sample ideas from: A Day in First Grade and Your Modern Family. We had multiple attempts, including one attempt at a three dimensional T-rex.
I made up a dinosaur family tree, plus 10 cards describing categories of dinosaurs. (See my sample cards. Note: I do not have copyright permission to the images included, so you should find your own images to use for your cards.) We set them out on a table, along with a big pile of plastic dinosaurs and encouraged kids to sort them into categories.
Science Display – How Big were Dinos?
Walking Footprints: We took the stegosaurus feet illustration from this image then blew each one up to fill a full sheet of paper (i.e. about 11″ long) and printed several pairs. Then we taped them on the floor from the front door to the table, 6 feet apart, to show the stride length of a stegosaurus.
Big Footprint: Draw a t-rex footprint that is 3 feet long. Ask kids to guess how many kids’ footprints fit inside a T-rex footprint. Then have them take off their shoes and set them on the big footprint to compare. (Idea from Mrs. Lee and 4.bp.blogspot)
Rope to show length: Take a long rope and stretch it across the room. Tell kids it’s as long as [pick a dinosaur that’s about the length of the rope you happen to have.]
Posters: I printed a collection of posters – some about how big a footprint was, how big dinosaurs were, and one showing a life-size picture of how big a t-rex tooth was. You can see the posters here.
Print this puzzle on 11 x 17 paper and laminate it, then let children use white board markers to trace the path of footprints to see which dinosaur made the tracks. Note: children of all ages (3 and up) enjoyed this activity. But it was only the 6 – 8 year olds who were able to trace all the lines back accurately.
Arts & Crafts
Give them cardstock, lots of shapes of noodles, glue, and pictures of dinosaur skeletons and pasta dino skeletons for inspiration.
For 3 – 4 year olds, I print out materials from Prekinders and cut them out. After gluing together the paper skeleton, kids are given the option of adding noodle “bones” to their picture.
We’ve used plastic molds of dinosaurs that kids pressed Model Magic air drying clay in to make take-home dinosaurs. (On Amazon, search for “dinosaur molds” and you’ll find several options.)
You can find Dinosaur Rubbing Plates where children lay paper over the plate, and use crayons to make a rubbing.
Paper Plate Triceratops Mask
Make a mask with a paper plate, paper triangles, and popsicle sticks.
Color a Dinosaur Mask:
There are LOTS of free printable dinosaur masks online. You can get some that are already colored in, and some that are black and white line drawings the kids can color in. Then they cut them out, add elastic ties, and wear. Here are some options: Mother Natured, Itsy Bitsy Fun, DIY Fashion, and Mask Spot.
I also really like this 3-D dinosaur mask based on Paul Strickland’s art in the book Dinosaur Roar – it’s too difficult for this age group to assemble one, but I made one for them to try on.
Flying Pterodactyl: Just for the fun of it, we tied a string up near the ceiling with a straw mounted on it, then taped a plastic pterodactyl to it. We could hold the kids up and let them push the toy to make it fly.
Snack: There are dinosaur shaped cheese puffs, chicken nuggets, and more. Or there’s Dinosaur Egg oatmeal.
Search for Signs of Wildlife: Once a month, our class meets at a park with nature trails, and we do a nature-based activity. This month, we talked about how you could tell an animal had been in the woods: if you saw tracks, scat, signs that animals had been eating (like stripped bark or chewed leaves), homes (spider webs, nests, etc.) and eggs. We looked for signs of real animals (mostly dogs and rodents in this suburban park, although we did find a tree stripped of bark, so it’s possible a deer has also been there – I’ve seen them a mile away from this park), but also “signs that a dinosaur had been in our woods”.
I found pictures of items online, printed and laminated them, and hid them in the woods. We found t-rex footprints, sauropod footprints, dinosaur poop (really a picture of crocodile dung), dinosaur eggs (a photo of an alligator nest), a photo of chewed up leaves, and a photo of stripped bark. (Here’s a pdf of the photos I used, but again, I don’t have copyright privileges for these images, so would encourage you to find your own.)
I wanted to take the kids to a clearing in the woods, but when I checked it before class, I found that there was a lot of trash there. I took the kids there anyway, and used it as an opportunity to talk about the fact that animals sometimes leave waste behind, because they can’t help it. But, we as humans can choose to leave no trace – picking up and carrying out all our trash. We cleaned up the clearing before returning to the classroom.
Big Ideas for Group Time
In circle time, you’ll discover that you have some kids who know next to nothing about dinosaurs, and others that know more than most adults! There’s a few messages that should be made clear to all.
- Dinosaurs are extinct. They lived a really long time ago, but they are not alive now. The closest thing we really will see is a crocodile or an alligator, although birds are also descendants of dinosaurs.
- They weren’t ALL really big. Some dinosaurs were the size of a chicken.
- The way we know about dinosaurs is by finding and digging up bones and fossil evidence, and then attempting to assemble them into full skeletons and gather data about things like what they ate, how they walked, and so on.
- When talking about dinosaurs, it’s pretty hard to avoid the idea that some dinosaurs lived by eating other dinosaurs. Parents can sometimes get skittish about the “violence” of dinosaurs, especially since movies make millions of dollars by showcasing this violence. But you can also be pretty matter of fact about it. Just as we can say “frogs eat bugs” or “eagles eat mice”, we can address that carnivorous dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs.
There must be hundreds of children’s books about dinosaurs! Believe me, I read most of them when my son was three… we’d walk to the library twice a week and bring home a giant stack of nothing but dinosaur books. (If you live in King County, WA, you can put books on hold at the library and pick them up a couple days later – it’s as easy as ordering from Amazon! They also have tons of e-books you can check out. Learn more about KCLS libraries.)
Here’s photos of just a few dinosaur books.
Kids’ Non-Fiction about Dinos
Here’s some good overviews that I would recommend for varying age groups. They cover basic ideas like what dinosaurs are and how scientists know about them.
Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs by Barton. The best dinosaur book for toddlers, age 2 – 4. Simple primary color illustrations and simple text.
Let’s Talk About Dinosaurs by Teckentrup. Good for ages 3 – 6, although we skipped some pages when we read it in circle.
Digging Up Dinosaurs by Aliki. A nice overview of both dinosaurs and paleontology: now how bones are excavated and transported to museums. We’ve used it as a read-aloud for ages 3 – 7, but we skip over or shorten parts of it. (And it’s probably over the heads of our youngest kids.)
Dinosaurs! by Gibbons. A nice overview of dino facts, at a level preschoolers can follow but kids age 5 to 7 will also like.
Monster Bones: The Story of a Dinosaur Fossil by Bailey and Lilly. Good for 5 – 7 year old. Begins with a dino dying and sinking to the bottom of the river. Covers the fossilization process in detail, then the discovery, the dig process led by the paleontologist and preparing the skeleton for display. I may like this better than Aliki’s Digging Up, but it’s even longer – I would only read it aloud to first grade and up.
Fossils Tell of Long Ago by Aliki. Similar quality to Aliki’s other book – talks more about the fossilization process than Digging Up does.
In addition to all the non-fiction books, dinosaurs also feature prominently in LOTS of story books. Dinosaur Roar! by Strickland is not educational, but it’s one of my very favorite books to read aloud. Captain Raptor by O’Malley is entertaining space opera with dinosaurs. Also check out When Dinosaurs Came with Everything by Broach is a terribly silly story – when you buy a dozen donuts, you get a dinosaur for free! There’s a YouTube read-aloud of it.
Again, there are LOTS of TV shows and movies that incorporate dinosaurs. Many kids love Dinosaur Train on PBS, and the Land Before Time series of movies. When my son was four, he loved Walking with Dinosaurs from the BBC. It’s done like a nature documentary, and it doesn’t shy away from the fact that some dinosaurs eat other dinosaurs, so it might be frightening for some little ones, but will work well for others, and they definitely did their research to get things as scientifically correct as possible. On YouTube, you can find “Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures” from cbeebies, which is also documentary style, but a little sillier / kid-friendly. (Both these shows do a good job of animating dinosaurs, and it might make your child think that dinosaurs are actually living somewhere on the planet now, so you may need to clarify that they’re extinct.)
There are also countless videos on YouTube if you search for “dinosaur songs for kids.” I have some of the ones we liked on a playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLsMLXfBPSxoH237JM_1fC_VKrMgwNVqLf
For Parents of Dino Lovers
If your kid is crazy for dinosaurs, be sure to check out a Psychological Explanation for Kids’ Love of Dinosaurs. Here’s a quote: “These kids can rattle off the scientific names of dozens… of dinosaurs. They can tell you what these creatures ate, what they looked like, and where they lived. They know the difference between the Mesozoic era and the Cretaceous period… For many of these children, that’s their first taste of mastery, of being an expert in something and having command of something their parent or coach or doctor doesn’t know. It makes them feel powerful.”
And, did you know that children with obsessions are actually smarter? “Intense interests” build knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, more in-depth information-processing skills, and linguistic skills. www.yourmodernfamily.com/obsessed-trucks-trains-cars-makes-kids-smarter